WASHINGTON — President Obama said Thursday that the U.S. and Turkey will keep ramping up pressure to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, with his country’s civil war having “wracked the region.”
At a news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the White House Rose Garden, Obama says the only way to resolve the crisis is for Assad to hand over power to a transitional government. He says Turkey will play a critical role in that process.
“We’re going to keep increasing the pressure on the Assad regime and working with the Syrian opposition,” Obama said. “We both agree that Assad needs to go.”
Obama said the U.S. will continue helping nations in the region deal with refugees with humanitarian aid.
Erdogan says the U.S. and Turkey have overlapping goals when it comes to Syria. Neither leader mentioned that the U.S. and Turkey remain far apart on just how to handle Syria’s bloody civil war.
Erdogan is visiting Washington just days after two car bombs in Turkey killed dozens in the deadliest terrorist attack there in years. Turkish authorities have blamed Syrian intelligence, and Erdogan has been calling for more aggressive steps to topple Assad’s government. Obama extended condolences for what he called the “outrageous bombings” and said the United States stands with Turkey in fighting terror threats.
But the Obama administration remains reluctant to take the kind of action Turkey would like to see, including establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.
The disagreement was unlikely to spoil a day of pomp for Erdogan, who arrived at the White House under the flags of a U.S. military honor guard lining the north driveway. He met with Obama in the Oval Office for three hours focusing largely on Mideast security issues, but Obama said they also agreed to create “a new high level committee” to focus on increasing trade and investment between the two countries.
Erdogan also was being treated to a formal lunch at the State Department lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry before his return to the White House for a working dinner with the president.
Despite differences over Syria, Erdogan will welcome the opportunity to showcase his close ties with Obama. He arrives after recently marking 10 years in office as a dominant figure in Turkish politics. As much as Erdogan wants the U.S. to exert greater power in Syria, the Obama administration sees Turkey as a critical broker on a host of issues in the region.
The administration recently negotiated a deal to repair ties between Turkey and Israel, which were severed following a 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in which eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed. The administration hopes to see an understanding sealed during Erdogan’s visit on compensation for the victims of the raid and their families. The U.S. sees reconciliation between Turkey and Israel as critical as it seeks to revitalize peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
It is also looking for Turkish help in ramping up sanctions on Iran and in cooling ethnic tensions in Iraq. Both Turkey and the U.S. see an opportunity this year to restart talks on the reunification of Cyprus, an issue that is also likely to come up in talks between Obama and Erdogan. Cyprus was split in 1974, when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of a union with Greece. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in 1983 is recognized only by Turkey, which maintains 35,000 troops there. Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a sovereign country.
Following the recent terrorist attacks in Turkey, Erdogan and Obama also will look to step up cooperation on counterterrorism.
Finally, the U.S. administration is likely to reassure Erdogan that Turkey will not lose out as the administration seeks a massive free trade deal with the European Union. Obama may also offer praise for Erdogan’s initiative to make peace with Kurdish rebels after a nearly 30-year battle.